I was in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, last week. Traveling with Larry Vale, professor of urban design and planning at MIT and director of the Resilient Cities Housing Initiative (RCHI), and Shomon Shamsuddin, postdoctoral research fellow at RCHI, we were there to observe the progress of housing development ten years after the 2014 Indian Ocean Tsunami. We visited Banda Aceh at the invitation of Teuku Alvisyahrin, of the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center.
Banda Aceh, although now relatively well-known because of the disaster and subsequent recovery effort, still lies quite far from either mainstream travel itineraries or much international development and planning conversations. Add to that lingering concerns, perpetuated by the slim amount of news of the area, about continued political challenges and the recent implementation of sharia law. It’s not necessarily somewhere one just happens to end up.
The tsunami in 2004 devastated the region, and wiped out large parts of this city. The waves, more than 20 meters high (65 ft), not only leveled the majority of built structures in the affected areas, it reshaped the land itself. Now, Banda Aceh is widely held as a successful reconstruction effort. Indeed, recovery – at least of the built environment – seems rapid and ongoing. Throughout the area, we saw thousands of new homes – all more or less of a kind, small, single-family, modest houses built by scores of NGOs. Ten years on many of the developments feel lived in, changing, and alive.
That said, they’re also not all the same. Some neighborhoods have clearly grown more organically, in a more interwoven manner, than others. We visited a “model” village, neat houses surrounding a comparably mammoth evacuation building. The only structure older than ten years was a partially destroyed two-plus storey house (see photo below), evidently left in this state as a memorial. We saw growing, changing neighborhoods, including, notably, areas accented with distinctly elevated houses by the nonprofit group UPLINK that had been filled in, added to, increasingly transformed. There were also developments that looked more monotonous and disconnected, showing less regard for existing community and livelihood networks.
And the growing of new community networks continues, quite literally. We heard stories about orphaned children with rights to houses but not yet old enough to live in them.
It was incredibly sobering to witness villages in which less than a fifth of their original residents survived, the survivors talking about those that perished with a directness that certainly belies the trauma that must have followed this massive destruction. At the end of our visit we visited the largest of the mass grave sites, now the final resting place for more than 46,000 people. How does one comprehend such numbers?
Another powerful facet of the story is the ways in which social relationships changed following such a large scale disaster and the subsequent recovery efforts. Banda Aceh turned into a center of intense NGO activity in the years after the tsunami, NGO expense budgets fueling a not-quite-real environment and economy that I imagine a place like Haiti to be in all the time. Residents also talked about the likely permanent shift in culture over the years, with multi-gender, late night cafe hangouts and WiFi hotspots now quite normal.
Over the coming months the RCHI team will be doing our part to understand better the role of housing in this recovery – what worked well, and what challenges remain. For now, I feel fortunate to have come at this particular time, soon enough to perceive the palpable enormity of the tragedy, far enough along to sense long-term impacts and real change.
Many thanks to Alvis, whose knowledge, hospitality, and planning made this visit invaluable and memorable.
Waduk Pluit, close to the north coast of Jakarta, is essentially a very large catchment basin, into which canals drain before being pumped out into the Jakarta Bay. Over the last year and a half, it has been under an intensive development effort, with hundreds of informal kampung settlement houses demolished and cleared from one of its banks, the residents largely moved into nearby low-income housing blocks. The cleared area is now a new park, named Taman Kota Waduk Pluit (Pluit City Park) but popularly known as “Taman Jokowi” after the current governor of Jakarta (and likely new president of Indonesia, see previous post.)
Here, heavy machinery sits at the edge, between new park, existing kampungs, the waduk waters.
Finally got to visit the Van Nelle factory building in Rotterdam, designed by architects Leendert van der Vlugt and Johannes Brinkman and completed in 1931. It’s been somewhat over-sprucely renovated in the last decade, and now houses a rather predictable assortment of new media companies, law firms, and other facets of the higher-end “creative” economy. The architecture itself left me speechless, astounded.
In the 1960s and 70s, technology companies took flight from the cities and set up in suburban corporate parks, dreaming up the information systems that would enable further decentralization, prompting Melvin Webber to proclaim the “post-city age” in 1968. Now, global cities threaded by optical fiber and lit up by sensors, hotspots, and RFID tags herald the techno-urban revolution. “Smart cities” are lauded as emancipatory, a new “urban age” in which intelligent systems increase quality of life and alleviate ecological damage. But “smart cities” also imply new spaces of control and ownership, new frontiers in the privatization of urban space, a “virtual enclosures.” The ultimate potential, it appears, is the control of urban practice itself. What, then, will become of the “right to urban life,” as exhorted by Henri Lefebvre?
What are the real-world impacts of real-time intelligent urban systems? To what extent do “smart city” projects constitute new “virtual” and physical enclosures of urban public space in the globalized, capitalist city? And, as we increasingly submit to real-time information gathering and our means of decision-making become more and more intertwined with the networks of urban systems, how is urban “public” experience transformed?
Logo: “urban” with the “u” enclosed like an @.